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What is 'forest bathing,' and why is it good for you?

First of all, I have never understood why, when I see people hiking alone in the wood far away from anybody, they are wearing a face mask. Now, I am very much a mask wearer. But alone in the woods? Are they afraid of getting coronavirus from trees?

Actually, researchers in Japan have discovered just the opposite and tell us we should do something called “forest bathing,” a technique scientifically proven to activate our immune system.

I admit feeling a bit titillated by forest bathing, envisioning a frolic in the forest sans clothing where I would encounter other lovely creatures of the opposite sex also forest bathing.

Which, of course, set off the voices arguing inside my head. What good could come from me gawking at other birthday-suited beauties in the woods? Well, for one, I would be forest bathing — a medically proven intervention. And for another, a wise woman once said, “It doesn't matter where you get your appetite as long as you dine at home.”

And just as the voices started screaming at each other, I learned (somewhat dissappointed/somewhat relieved) that despite the alluring name, forest bathing does not require you to remove your clothes. (“And anyway,” one of the nasally self-righteous voices in my brain went on, “it’s too cold to be streaking nude in the woods.”)

Forest bathing is simply walking in the woods. When human study subjects in Japan walked in the forest for 20 minutes a day a couple times a week, they activated their infection fighting cells that are known to be the first defense against common viruses.

Trees in the woods secrete phytochemicals into the air as a way to communicate with other trees. If one tree is being attacked by a parasitic infection, it will combat that parasite with a phytochemical and then secrete a phytochemical warning signal into the air to the surrounding trees, thus allowing other nearby trees to "arm" themselves (perhaps I should say "branch" themselves?) against the same parasite.

The researchers showed that when humans breathe in, or "bathe in" these phytochemicals, they activate their immune system and are presumably more able to fight off viruses like the flu, COVID and cancer.

With COVID currently in this dangerous surge before we all get the long-awaited vaccine, we have to do all we can do to decrease this virus’ spread. Mask wearing and social distancing are essential. Good sleep and exercise promote health. And a walk in the woods does a body good — whether or not that body is wearing clothes.


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